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15 October 2014
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HMS Barham - Scapa Flow: July 31-August 4, 1940

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN
Location of story: 
Scapa Flow
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2241820
Contributed on: 
28 January 2004

HMS Barham — Scapa Flow: 31 July — 3 August, 1940

A month after the onset of WW2, HMS Barham and the other battleships of 1st Battle Squadron were taken from the Mediterranean Fleet to re-inforce the Home Fleet. By the end of 1939, the only British naval forces in the Mediterranean were three small “C” class cruisers and some Australian destroyers. En route to Scapa Flow, Barham had a disastrous collision with HMS Duchess and was later torpedoed off the west coast of Scotland. After repairs at Liverpool had been completed, she sailed to Scapa Flow for sea trials and gunnery practice before joining Vice Admiral Somerville’s “H” Force in the Western Mediterranean in late August 1940. My father, Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN was the Principal Medical Officer on Barham and wrote numerous letters to my mother from June 30th 1940 to November 23rd, 1941 (two days before Barham was sunk off Sollum in the Mediterranean). Extracts from his letters to my mother while Barham was at Scapa Flow give an insight to life on the ship during the months leading up to Barham’s first major action at Dakar.

31st July, 1940:

“Tell Graëme this true story. Two boys were brought before the Captain the other day for fighting on their mess-deck. One of them has sustained a cut lip in the scrap. The Captain ordered that they should be given a chance to fight it out on approved lines - 3 rounds with boxing gloves. This they are going to do as soon as medical advice declares that the lad with the cut lip is fit to take the ring. My chief saw him yesterday searching around for the Physical Training Instructor to get a few tips of boxing before the event comes off! Little episodes like that are always happening in HM Ships and observance of them adds a zest to life. Mrs Cooke (1) continues to do good work amongst the wives. She is a jolly good sort, despite the fact she is not always “on the spot”.

Note: (1) Wife of Captain Geoffrey Cooke, RN. lost with the Barham

1st August, 1940:

“Now that we are into August without any major attack having been made on our island, it seems that Adolph has given up all hope of maintaining his reputation for accurate prediction. His “London by August 15th” is now too fantastic to be considered; it always was! - but not now that the uncanny spell of success according to plan is broken, the tide may be turning. Personally, I think that Spain or Ireland are the places to watch for the next move after this lull in the storm, possibly concerted with German-Italian action in the Near East. For once, I agree with old Gavins of the “Observer”; he said last Sunday that if our defence holds on sea and in air until the New Year, final victory is certain. There seems to be no doubt about its holding, wistful thinking apart. I feel we are playing too much reliance on this hunger and famine racket in Europe a prediction of the coming winter; after all, the Nazis have probably more food now than three months ago and the whole German people have been on short commons for years - are well-schooled in privation - and if they can stand the racket it seems reasonable that they will take the steps to see that people under their thumbs can stand it too. However, there may come a time when the desperation of empty bellies will sweep thousands to bloody revolt, but this is not yet. Again, the lantern-jawed demon, Pestilence, may still show his face. Influenza in a famine and war-ridden population could do terrible damage. Man has never conquered the bacterium; we may be at the end of the line of the victory of the bacterium over man and his methods.”

“Did you hear old Shelton Thomas(2) last night talking about Malaya and the Empire? I didn’t go much on his discourse. It sounded to me more like a geographical and commercial compendium than an appeal to the spirit of Empire. His voice came through very well though.”

Note: (2) Thomas: Governor-General of Singapore when E.R.Sorley was at RN Base — Singapore

“It seems that the European catastrophe has made little change(3) in the economic life of Singapore - still the pleasant round of work and play - tennis, golf, Tanglin Club on Saturday nights. Often, it seems so unreal to me. There is no justification for the theory that the Singapore-side people are there for the duration. Commissions may be prolonged but there is no question of officers staying put forever. How pleasant it would have been for us, if I had had, say, a year’s sea time following the outbreak of war and then had gone to Singapore. Still we might not have enjoyed things so much. I cannot understand the Sloanes not liking the job - or at least, not saying to themselves that there are many worse places than Singapore.”

Note: (3) Written before the Japanese invaded Singapore in February 1942

“About the plasma preparations? You ask what they are. Well, up until recently, blood transfusion was achieved only by the admission to the recipient vein of (a) fresh blood, direct from a donor or (b) stored blood of recognised donors (storage not longer than 3 weeks). Now it has been found that blood from which the red cells have been removed is as effective or almost as effective in treating shock after haemorrhage as is whole blood. Blood minus red cells is called plasma; if you go one step more and remove the fibrinogens (the clotting stuff) you have serum. Now, plasma having no red cells cannot, on introduction to a patient’s blood, cause any damage by wrong grouping. So it is not necessary to type the patient before giving the transfusion. By the use then of stored plasma, much time is saved - without any preliminary “mucking about” with blood tests, the preparation can be run straight into the vein. On that last Saturday in Liverpool, Professor Davie mentioned the use of plasma and on my asking for some to keep on board he sent me 5 bottles. In the event of action, these will be of great advantage (4). Davie is about the foremost authority on transfusion in the country. A later scheme - still in the experimental stage - is the use of plasma dried to powder from which can be made ready for use by the addition of sterile water. Professor Davie has advised the adoption of this scheme - on trial - by the fighting forces. I hope it is adopted.”

Note: (4) Used at Crete when Barham was bombed. First time in history plasma used in a naval action.

2nd August, 1940:

“Of course, the censorship racket may be the restraining influence, but even so, I come out with flying colours. So please never call me a cold unemotional Scot again. It was H.V.Morton who said that the Scots were the most emotional race in the world under the veneer of phlegm - how else, he said, can one explain the fact that the War Memorial in Edinburgh is the finest, most touching and most tender monument in the whole world. That was written by an Englishman.”

3rd August, 1940:

“Just a short letter today so that my record may not go by the board(5) . I have been fairly occupied all day, the greater part of the morning was concerned with Captain’s rounds; and then in the afternoon the Captain (Geoffrey Cooke) asked me to land with him for a long walk. We landed about 3.45 pm in the skipper’s speedboat, going pretty far afield before arriving at a suitable landing place. Even so we had to clamber up rocky scree to get onto the jetty proper. The day was marvellous and I haven’t enjoyed a walk so much for a long time. Everything was so green and primitive and peaceful that Hitler and all his works seemed far out of mind. We got back on board about 6.30 p.m. On returning to the boat to come back we found that the crew had not wasted their time while we were walking. They had gathered an enormous bucketful of cockles and mussels and winkles on the shore.”

Note: (5) Writing a letter each day

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